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U.S. 44-gun frigate, nicknamed Old Ironsides. It is perhaps the most famous vessel in the history of the U.S. navy. Authorized by Congress in 1794, the ship was launched in 1797 and was commissioned and put to sea in 1798 in the undeclared naval war with the French. It participated in the Tripolitan War. In the War of 1812, serving as flagship for Isaac HullHull, Isaac,
1773–1843, American naval officer, b. Derby, Conn. He served in the undeclared naval war with France (1798–1800) and in the Tripolitan War before being promoted to captain in 1806. In 1810 he was given command of the Constitution.
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, The Constitution won a battle with the British vessel Guerrière on Aug. 19, 1812, and under the command of William Bainbridge it defeated the Java on Dec. 29, 1812. Charles Stewart was commanding the Constitution when on Feb. 20, 1815, it overcame the Cyane and the Levant (though the Levant was later recaptured by the British). The Constitution was condemned (1830) as unseaworthy, but public sentiment, aroused by Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "Old Ironsides," saved the ship from dismantling, and it was rebuilt in 1833. The ship was laid up at the Portsmouth navy yard in 1855 and was there used as a training ship. In 1877 it was rebuilt again, and the next year it crossed the Atlantic. In 1897 it was stored at the Boston navy yard, and in 1927–30, under authorization of Congress, it was restored by public subscription (1925–27). Another restoration was begun in 1992 and was completed in 1997. The Constitution is now maintained at the Boston navy yard.


See J. Barnes, Naval Actions of the War of 1812 (1896); I. N. Hollis, The Frigate "Constitution" (1901); E. Snow, On the Deck of "Old Ironsides" (1932); T. P. Horgan, Old Ironsides (1963); J. E. Jennings, Tattered Ensign (1966); T. G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship (1997).


fundamental principles of government in a nation, either implied in its laws, institutions, and customs, or embodied in one fundamental document or in several. In the first category—customary and unwritten constitutions—is the British constitution, which is contained implicitly in the whole body of common and statutory law of the realm, and in the practices and traditions of the government. Because it can be modified by an ordinary act of ParliamentParliament,
legislative assembly of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Over the centuries it has become more than a legislative body; it is the sovereign power of Great Britain, whereas the monarch remains sovereign in name only.
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, the British constitution is often termed flexible. This enables Britain to react quickly to any constitutional emergency, but it affords no fundamental protections of civil or personal liberty, or any areas in which parliamentary legislation is expressly forbidden. The theory of the social contract, developed in the 17th cent. by Thomas HobbesHobbes, Thomas
, 1588–1679, English philosopher, grad. Magdalen College, Oxford, 1608. For many years a tutor in the Cavendish family, Hobbes took great interest in mathematics, physics, and the contemporary rationalism.
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 and John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
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, was fundamental to the development of the modern constitution. The Constitution of the United StatesConstitution of the United States,
document embodying the fundamental principles upon which the American republic is conducted. Drawn up at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the Constitution was signed on Sept.
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, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, was the first important written constitution, and a model for a vast number of subsequent constitutional documents. Though to a large extent based on the principles and practices of the British constitution, the Constitution of the United States has superior sanction to the ordinary laws of the land, interpreted through a process of judicial review that passes judgment on the constitutionality of subsequent legislation, and that is subject to a specially prescribed process of amendmentamendment,
in law, alteration of the provisions of a legal document. The term usually refers to the alteration of a statute or a constitution, but it is also applied in parliamentary law to proposed changes to a bill or motion under consideration, and in judicial procedure to
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. The rigidity of its written format has been counterbalanced by growth and usage: in particular, statutory elaboration (see Congress of the United StatesCongress of the United States,
the legislative branch of the federal government, instituted (1789) by Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which prescribes its membership and defines its powers.
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) and judicial construction (see Supreme Court, United StatesSupreme Court, United States,
highest court of the United States, established by Article 3 of the Constitution of the United States. Scope and Jurisdiction
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, and Marshall, JohnMarshall, John,
1755–1835, American jurist, 4th chief justice of the United States (1801–35), b. Virginia. Early Life

The eldest of 15 children, John Marshall was born in a log cabin on the Virginia frontier (today in Fauquier co., Va.
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) have kept the written document abreast of the times. But a written constitution, without a commitment to its principles and civil justice, has often proved to be a temporary or rapidly reversed gesture. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th cent., many countries, having made sharp political and economic departures from the past, had little legal custom to rely upon and therefore set forth their organic laws in written constitutions—some of which are judicially enforced. Adolf Hitler never formally abolished the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and the protections of personal liberties contained in the Soviet constitution of 1936 proved to be empty promises. Since the 1960s, many of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa have adopted written constitutions, often on the model of the American, British, or French constitutions.


See E. McWhinney, Constitution-Making (1981); V. Bhagwan and V. Bhushan, World Constitutions (2d ed. 1987); P. Bobbitt, Constitutional Interpretation (1991); J. W. Peltason, Understanding the Constitution (12th ed. 1991).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a state’s fundamental law, which has the highest legal force and establishes the basic principles of the political, legal, and economic systems of a given country.

A constitution reflects the correlation of class forces at the time of its adoption. It consolidates the dictatorship of the ruling class, the form of government, the structure of the state, the organizational procedure and jurisdiction of both central and local government bodies and administration, the legal status of the individual, the organization and fundamental principles of justice, and the electoral system.

As to their form, constitutions are usually classified as written or unwritten. In the overwhelming majority of countries, written constitutions consist of a single act. However, they may be composed of a body of constitutional or organic acts. (This is the case in Sweden, Spain, and Finland.) Unwritten constitutions, which are in force in Great Britain and New Zealand, consist of a great number of laws, constitutional customs, and precedents. The right to adopt a constitution (the constituent authority) is given to a constituent assembly (for example, in Italy and India), to the electorate by means of a referendum (for example, in France and Turkey), or to the head of the state (for example, in Iran and Afghanistan). As a rule, the procedure for making changes and amendments is established in the constitution. (The procedure for amending a constitution is more complicated than the procedure for the adoption of ordinary laws.)

The constitutions of most contemporary bourgeois states proclaim a number of democratic rights and liberties for citizens. Thus, as a result of the deepening of the class struggle in the 20th century the majority of bourgeois constitutions came to include provisions concerning universal suffrage, the right to form political parties, and the right to strike, for example. The creation of the world socialist system, which, for the working people of capitalist countries, serves as an example of the realization of citizens’ rights, has greatly influenced the broadening of constitutional rights and liberties.

However, the constitutions of the bourgeois states merely proclaim democratic civil rights and liberties and do not contain real guarantees of their implementation. In these countries constitutions are an instrument of the dictatorship of the ruling class, which makes certain concessions but which, in practice, finds ways to evade constitutional norms and violate the legality it has created. For instance, the established provisions of the constitution may be violated by the government’s legislative activity, which is often contrary to the constitution and which narrows the legislative rights of the elected parliament.

The Communist parties in the capitalist countries attach great significance to the struggle for the observance of constitutional rights and liberties, considering their demands in this regard to be part of the struggle for socialism.

The constitutions of the socialist countries consolidate the power of the working people and establish the principles of the economic, political, and legal systems of socialist society, which has abolished the exploitation of man by man. In addition to consolidating the gains of the working people, and the democratic rights and liberties of the citizens, socialist constitutions contain real guarantees for the realization of these rights and liberties. As a rule, they contain programmatic provisions concerning the further development of the society. All socialist constitutions are uniform, systematized acts. The draft constitutions of the socialist countries are usually drawn up by special constitutional commissions and are subject to public consideration. In the USSR, Poland, Hungary, and Rumania the highest bodies of state power have the right to adopt a constitution. Constitutions are adopted by referendum in the German Democratic Republic and Bulgaria.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the fundamental political principles on which a state is governed, esp when considered as embodying the rights of the subjects of that state
2. (in certain countries, esp Australia and the US) a statute embodying such principles
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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